For language bullies, that signaling usually manifests in one of two scenarios. In the first case, someone of a higher status or position uses some advanced understanding in order to feel superior. “When someone corrects our grammar or word usage, shame and embarrassment are likely emotions,” says Michael Kraus, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois who studies the impact of social hierarchy on everyday life. “In this context, word usage and grammar corrections are an effective tool to put someone in their [low-status] place.”
But there’s another common instance of the phenomenon, according to Monin. “I suspect it goes the other way, also—that there’s a particular glee for the cranky person who thinks: ‘This guy went to Harvard and now writes at the New York Times, and yet I know better than him,’ ” he says. “There is a glee in upending people who are supposed to be superior to us—especially if we think it’s unfair that they are superior to us. That’s the other hidden part of this: I’m tearing my hair out at this horrible mistake, and I’m all agitated, but it seems like the true emotion is a joyful, vengeful one. I’m actually kind of excited to be able to correct you.”
Monin suggests that, for some language bullies, acquisition of specialized, technical information—knowledge of an oft-mistaken definition, for instance, or mastery of a particularly tricky grammar rule—is at least partly undertaken in anticipation of an ego-boosting endgame. There is a thrill, that is, in being one of a select few who knows “the truth” about how to use a certain word. “It’s an obscure, esoteric truth,” he says. “And one reason to know it is because you know you are going to feel superior to everyone else. There’s something that feels really good about realizing you’re in the know and everyone else is wrong.”
But to take full advantage of that knowledge, language bullies must use it in a way that allows others to recognize and appreciate their possession of this advanced understanding. So the excitement they derive from publicly correcting someone does not end when the offending party is set straight. In some ways language bullies are putting on a show for other persnickety peevers.
“It’s like when an insect makes a scent or something to get a mate from miles away,” says Monin. “They are kind of emitting this thing for someone else who is another linguistic snob to come over and say, ‘Oh yeah, I know, I hate it when people do that.’ And it’s like this weird matchmaking thing: ‘Here, come over here and grind your teeth with me if you think that’s horrible.’ ”
Consider this note submitted to NPR a while back by an avid listener: “NPR’s journalists routinely use the word ‘decimate’ when they mean to denote ‘completely ruined or destroyed.’ ‘Decimate’ means to kill every tenth person or soldier as a means of mass punishment. How in the world can a town or country be decimated? It can’t possibly. The word they should be using to mean ‘completely ruined or destroyed’ is ‘devastated.’ ” That may seem like a ridiculous thing to fuss over, but, before long, fellow commenters piled on. “This one bothers me too,” another listener wrote. “I hear decimate and I think ‘reduce by 10%’ as an automatic reaction!”
So language bullies love company. But the only people who love language bullies are other language bullies, and that’s largely because the rest of us realize that the use of their advanced knowledge doesn’t have to result in a shaming exhibition at another’s expense. When someone uses a word in a way that we believe to be technically incorrect, we have choices. Beyond the obvious one—simply recognizing that the definitions and usages of words change over time, and getting on with our lives—there are at least two additional options available. We can correct the person in private, or we can point out the mistake publicly. “I think that choice is pretty revealing,” Kurzban says. “If you are in an antagonistic relationship with the person, then you might do the public correction. If you’re in a positive interaction with the person, and you want to save them from embarrassment, then you might do it privately.” He adds: “I know who my real friends are in this way. My friends email me when I [make an error] in a blog post. My enemies put it in the comments section.”
That’s not to suggest, of course, that all who offer up hyper-technical corrections in a public forum are necessarily language bully-type enemies. (Monin posits that some correctors may earnestly consider themselves stewards of the language: “If people misuse a word repeatedly, that becomes the usage of the word. So in that respect, it’s important to [speak up] if I think the ‘correct’ usage is important.”) But even if we assume altruistic motives in every case, that doesn’t make pushy, nitpicky language corrections any easier to stomach.
A few weeks back, an item featuring a vocals-only version of Outkast’s turn-of-the-century tour de force “B.O.B.” devoid of all accompanying beats and background instrumentation appeared on Slate’s Brow Beat blog. The post was titled “The Isolated Vocals for ‘Bombs Over Baghdad’ Are Amazing.” For anyone even remotely interested in hip-hop, and for lots of lovers of music generally, the isolated vocal track is amazing. And awesome—the speed and accuracy with which André 3000 and Big Boi rap is tremendous to the point of boggling the mind. For one language bully, though, a commenter named Jeff, the post was exciting for a different reason—it provided the perfect opportunity to deliver a wording wrist slap. “Awesome implies something that leaves you in awe,” he wrote, emphasizing the technical definition of the word awesome while simultaneously de-emphasizing the technicality that the headline used the word amazing rather than awesome. “Is anyone really in awe at this? A hurricane is awesome. That first true smile from your baby is awesome. This is neat.”
Cue the sad trombone.
Fortunately, Jeff’s anti-awesome bullying was not the last word on this issue. In a triumph of good sense, his insight received no love, and zero likes, from fellow commenters. Instead, it got what it deserved. “You must be a hit at parties,” a follow-up commenter replied concisely, awesomely. Twelve people gave that one the thumbs up.